The chairman of the S.C. House’s Ethics Committee told a Richland County jury Thursday that he would have a major conflict if he voted for a bill that benefited the company he worked for.
“No, sir, I could not vote for the bill, not if I’m going to personally benefit from it financially,” testified House Ethics Committee chair Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens.
Special prosecutor David Pascoe had asked Pitts if he could “go to the Legislature and vote” for an advocacy group’s bills if he worked for a company that took money from that group.
The hypothetical situation — posed by Pascoe and answered by Pitts — parallels the real-life issue at play in the trial of ex-state Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, charged with misconduct, perjury and criminal conspiracy.
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The prosecution rested its case in the high-profile public-corruption trial Thursday after four days, having called 15 witnesses. Pitts was the last.
Harrison will have a chance to testify Friday when court reconvenes at 9:30 a.m.
Closing arguments to the jury also are expected Friday.
Prosecutors allege Harrison used his position as chairman of the S.C. House’s powerful Judiciary Committee to make money for himself. They also allege he failed to disclose his job with the influential Richard Quinn & Associates lobbying firm, better known as a political consulting and strategy firm. Harrison is also charged with lying to the state grand jury when asked about the kind of work he did for the Quinn firm.
The few times that Harrison did acknowledge his 1999 to 2012 employment at Richard Quinn & Associates, the Columbia Republican said he worked only on the Quinn firm’s well-known political campaigns. The Quinn firm never disclosed it also was a lobbying outfit. However, last year, it entered a guilty plea to illegal lobbying.
Being open with the public about where lawmakers get their money — who pays them — is vital, Pitts told the jurors Thursday.
Transparency is “how the public views our integrity,” Pitts testified. “They want light shone on us so they can know what we are doing. ... They want to know who is influencing what we do and how we vote.”
Harrison was paid about $80,000 a year by Richard Quinn & Associates from 1999 through 2012. The firm stopped paying Harrison when he left the Legislature.
Pitts served 10 years in the House with Harrison. Asked by Pascoe if he ever was aware Harrison worked for the Quinn firm, Pitts answered, “No, sir, I was not.”
Asked what he thought Harrison’s full-time employment was, the Upstate Republican replied: “An attorney.”
“Would it surprise you to learn that Harrison made $84,000 a year working for Richard Quinn & Associates?” Pascoe asked.
“Yes, sir, it would,” Pitts responded.
Harrison was no mere legislator, Pitts testified. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Harrison oversaw a committee that took up almost half the bills proposed in the House, determining which ones were taken up for passage and which ones weren’t. Moreover, since Harrison was a veteran lawmaker, first elected in 1989, members looked up to him and often would follow his lead, Pitts testified.
Pitts testified he knew of Richard Quinn & Associates as a political consulting firm, not as a firm whose business and institutional clients included “lobbyist principals.” Lobbyist principals are companies or institutions that hire lobbyists to lobby the Legislature. It is unlawful for them to hire consulting firms that aren’t registered as lobbyists but function as lobbyists.
During cross-examination, Harrison defense attorney Reggie Lloyd asked Pitts about a 1999 House Ethics Committee opinion that Harrison says allowed him to work at Richard Quinn & Associates.
The opinion allowed Harrison to work at the Quinn firm, Pitts said. But, he added, the opinion also states: “You are required to report” that employment.
Harrison didn’t, violating the law, prosecutors contend.
Lloyd also asked Pitts if he recalled any time when Harrison had asked him to vote for any bill before the House.
Yes, said Pitts, describing how Harrison lobbied him to vote for cigarette tax bill backed by BlueCross BlueShield, one of Richard Quinn & Associate’s corporate clients.
However, Pitts acknowledged, he didn’t remember what year Harrison tried to get his vote on the cigarette tax bill. Defense attorney Lloyd said the Quinn firm only was paid by BlueCross BlueShield in certain years to lobby for the cigarette-tax bill.
Harrison was absent from the courtroom Thursday. State Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen told the jury that he had a “health issue” and would return Friday.